I cannot imagine the Western Christian that could read Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion and not have at least one prick of the heart. For me, there were many. It is extremely difficult, given our embeddedness in consumerism, to imagine a world of non-consumption Christendom. Miller gives me pause and greater discomfort on what was already uncomfortable.
I believe his premise gets at the convolution of the relationship between consumerism and Christianity – that it is not the beliefs or values Christians hold to but the disconnection of those to our daily practices and behaviors.At a value level, real Christians would choose less consumption over abhorrent labor slums. But at a behavior level, we are so far removed and divorced from this reality that we behave the same way we always have. We want ‘a religion that cares about the poor, stands against injustice, and so on…but the ease with which we are able to negotiate such disconnects between belief and practice is the central concern of this study.’I attest to this in my own life and the divide raises many questions for me.
One of the piercings I experienced was when Miller uses Guy Debord’s work to assert how all of culture is now commodified. He says something striking. ‘If Marx’s analysis of early capitalism described a shift from ‘being to having,’ Debord sensed an equally profound shift under way around him, this one from ‘having to appearing’.What an apt description of our social media era. We chase down the ‘good life’ and yet it never quite delivers. It is like we have traded a simple life of ‘being’ that is found in relationship with God, others and work for one that is never satisfied and continues to amass for the sake of appearing like we are satisfied.
I would like ‘being’ to define me more than it does; and I would like ‘having’ not drive me so much; and I would like to let go of ‘appearing’ as a way of proving my worth. This sounds like sanctification.
A good starting place for this work within us is with an increased awareness of commodification, for which I am indebted to both Miller and Polanyi. But now what to do with this awareness? And how do we respond? How do we live and buy and give? I have more questions than answers and offer one simple thought among the several I have.
As we attend to our theology, may we take more seriously the invitation to both death and joy. Death and joy are not mutually exclusive. Our hedonistic, selfish nature must die and be ‘born again’ in Christ. The Gospel calls and empowers us to this. And the ongoing work of sanctification aids in the taming of our blind consumerism and calls for us to daily take up our cross. Yes, it will require death.
And there is also great joy to attend to as we journey with Christ. Max Weber’s account of the Puritans’ disdain for worldly joy and leisure has had me thinking. God did not create humans for only work and labor. And yet we know that hedonism and blind consumption do not lead to deep joy. In fact, they lead in the opposite direction. And even though I have much to learn from our Puritan tradition, I am unwilling to move towards more austerity and somberness in a way to quenches real joy.
C.S. Lewis asserted that Christians should be the most joy-filled of all humans. Do we pay attention to the differences between deep joy and mere entertainment? Could this be a key, ironically, to keep consumerism at bay more and more in our hearts?
Lewis says ‘All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desires. Our best havings are wantings.’
Joy reminds. May I be reminded that I am a pilgrim and this world is not my true home. I am not here to consume and possess and amass. May God help me to love and relate more than I use and discard. God is this way in ways it is difficult for me to fathom. And may I hold anything I ‘have’ as a means of showing me what I truly ‘want’. Amen.
Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York: Continuum International, 2003, 17.
Weber, Max. Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. Florence: Routledge, 2001. Accessed February 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. Loc. 1871.
Martindale, Wayne, and Jerry Root. The Quotable Lewis: an Encyclopedic Selection of Quotes from the Complete Published Works of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1989, 289.